The mesmerizing, danceable world music of the Afro-Zen Allstars may come from a lot of traditions, but its heart is in the brief, glorious flowering of Ethiopian nightlife.
In the late ’60s, strict cultural restrictions began to loosen with the decline of aging Ethiopian King Hailie Selassie, a.k.a. Ras Tafari, who’s deification by a Jamaican sect would indirectly give birth to reggae. The nightlife in the capitol, Addas Ababa, exploded with a distinctive new music that mixed traditional forms with Western jazz and rock. It was the other side of the coin from the appropriation of modal eastern forms by American groups like the Grateful Dead.
With cruel historical inevitability, the “Swinging Abbas” scene was snuffed out by a Communist military coup in 1974, resulting in massacres, curfews, and a generation of expatriate musicians seeding the form around the world.
But you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the new CD, “The Buzz and the Bells” by Richmond’s own Afro-Zen Allstars. Or to dance to them in person with a killer band led by George M. Lowe,as well as the sinuous lead guitar of Chris Vasi, alongside a killer horn and percussion section. But the history is a reminder of the at once fragile and indestructible power of creative brilliance in dark times.
As we previously wrote about the group’s new album, “The Buzz and the Bells” in this blog: “Sinuous guitars and full-bodied saxophones solo over a deep, danceable groove … Band leader/guitarist George M. Lowe arranges all of the pieces with abundant space for his bandmates to stand out amid the hypnotic whirl of moving parts. Whether floating on the undulating melodic surface or diving into the rhythmic crosscurrents, this is music that takes you somewhere.”
Sponsored by JamInc., Afro-Zen Allstars perform at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on Wednesday, March 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.